Simplification – The Art of Carrying Less on the A.T.

Rose Turner’s Thoughts from the Appalachian Trail

A thru-hike is an extended meditation on the art of simplification. While the exact contents or weight of your pack are far from being the only determinant in whether you will succeed in your intended thru-hike, the combination of what you carry in your pack, your head, and your heart, along with a bit of luck as far as injuries and weather go, is what will make or break you. Now, of course, you can’t control the weather, and there’s only so much you can do to prevent injuries. What you do have a say in is what you carry with you.

My Full Pack and AT Thru-Hiker Tag

I don’t think any two thru-hikers have exactly the same pack set up. For that matter, I doubt any one thru-hiker has carried the exact same things from start to finish. From what I have observed and experienced, successful thru-hikers must constantly be reassessing the worth of carrying each item in their pack and each worry in their heart. Maybe if you don’t have much time to read, you should drop your book in the next hiker box. Maybe you only need to carry a small number of bandaids with you and not a whole box worth. Maybe you’re not devoting enough time to that tin whistle to validate carrying it on your back all day. Let’s get crazy – maybe you don’t even need underwear.

(A small sample of things I started with last year but don’t normally carry with me anymore)

It comes down to the basics. Humans need food, water, shelter, first aid (potentially), and warmth to survive. If you want to survive for a long time and maybe even thrive, then you’ll need connection, too. But honestly, that’s about it. So, it follows that all of our material possessions should serve one of those needs. In the thruhiking world, that means you carry enough food to make it to the next town. You carry enough water to make it to the next spring. Most of us carry stoves; all of us carry lighters. Most have sleeping bags and pads, some have quilts. Most of us carry tents or hammocks, some are willing to risk relying on shelters the whole way (see previous article). Our first aid kits vary widely, but often include some kind of tape, bandaids, neosporin, and tweezers. Few travel alone the whole time, and even those who do seem to make a point of getting some human connection at shelters and hostels and other such hiker hubs.

A lot of the things we use can actually be quite cheap. Ziplock wallets are almost universal out here. Most, if not all, of the necessary clothing can be found at a thrift store or even as an off brand on Amazon. (Splurge on shoes that really work for you, fresh socks, and a wool base layer if you’re hiking in colder months.)

There are a few things you don’t want to skimp out on, though: pack, sleeping bag, and shelter. Known as “the big three,” it’s critical to get a pack that actually fits you and is the right size for what you carry. I use a 50L pack, personally, and it’s been just right. Sleeping bag needs will vary based on temperature and personal preference, but broadly speaking, down-filled bags are lighter weight and better insulation, making them ideal for longer trips. Shelters, as discussed in the previous post, are usually tents or hammocks. Everyone’s ideal set up is so different that I would recommend testing out any gear you’re able to borrow overnight.

This bunny I saw today doesn’t carry a thing. Simple and free.

Like I said, exact contents will vary. While I’m not opposed to carrying “luxury items”, as we call them out here (I have art supplies and an “extra” pair of socks, for example), I am very much in favor of limiting what I carry with me, for ease of mind and body.

I propose a Pack List Test.

The test works like this: after a week of backpacking, try listing everything in your pack and exactly where you keep each item, from memory. If you can do so easily, you have passed the first part of the test. If not, it may be time for a shake down. [A shake down is when someone (usually separate from the pack owner) takes out everything in a pack and brutally assesses the value of carrying each thing.] Part two of the test is, do you actually use everything in your pack? At least a couple times a week? Is there anything you can replace or do without, without compromising any of your needs or genuine nourishment? Anything that doesn’t pass part two of the test should be sent home, given away, or otherwise disposed of.

All of this to say, having trimmed my own pack weight down about 15lbs since I first started, I was free to carry the 5 pound hedgehog named Lillie Mae from Damascus to Boots Off Hostel, a 40 mile trek, as a fun way to get a free night’s stay. The thru-hiking world is silly and wonderful.

Sometimes carrying a 4lb hedgehog for 40 miles is worth it if you get free lodging and dinner.
Rose Turner wearing her simplified pack